For anyone who forgot how the intimacy of a guitar and piano duo could emblazon musical ideas, just look to Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau's first collaboration, Metheny Mehldau. In many ways this record continues the conversation between guitar and piano begun by Jim Hall and Bill Evans nearly fifty years before.
But that is not to say that Metheny and Mehldau have fallen into predictable patterns. Both have managed to preserve unique voices that propitiously bolster the other. Nor is it to say that the record is without flaws. Metheny's compositions are all too reminiscent of recent recordings; his notes float to chord tones in almost identical ways. The new relationship with Mehldau, however, breathes exciting life into what teeters for Metheny on the precipice of hackneyed. For Mehldau, who is still in his mid-30s, this record is a documentation of a maturing sensibility, both in his diverse improvisation and composition.
Metheny begins the album with a slur that's portentous of the sophisticated touch the two artists find individually and collectively. So often Mehldau's chord hits are right on the mark, both giving ground to Metheny's ethereal melodies and encouraging the empty space to round out his notes. And Metheny's accompaniment is occastionally just as striking as Mehldau's. On "Ahmid-6" he convinces the listener that he is playing polyrhythmically, an impossible task on the guitar but one for which Mehldau is so well known on the piano.
Just as Metheny incorporates much of Mehldau into his accompaniment, Mehldau's solo on "Summer Day" sounds as if it were Metheny transcribed to ivory and ebony, a testament to their musical kinship.
Like the best of records, Metheny Mehldau improves as it continues. "Say the Brother's Name" both grooves and preserves a sense of the straight-ahead tradition in which both players are so steeped. Leading into Mehldau's solo, the piano and guitar unite to play a brief line that sounds strikingly like the Delfonics' Motown hit "La La Means I Love You." The ear-catching theme iterates four more times, until a climax comes to close out the tune. Drummer Jeff Ballard's playing is so full that Metheny can hold back entirely, letting Ballard's pulverizing rhythm prop up the piano.
The record closes with the most powerful theme of all. On "Make Peace" Mehldau and Metheny's harmonies evince a quality of what it must be like for a sailor to look out upon the dark open sea the morning after a squall; a maelstrom of re-occurring harmony recalls a sensation of tumult that is all but lifted as the tune and album float away on the back of a charmingly syncopated three-note melody.
Unrequited; Ahmid-6; Summer Day; Ring of Life; Legend; Find Me in Your Dreams; Say the Brother's Name; Bachelors III; Annie's Bittersweet Cake; Make Peace.
Pat Metheny: guitars; Brad Mehldau: piano; Jeff Ballard: drums; Larry Grenadier: bass.